PORT HARDY—Finding themselves on the picket line instead of in a classroom as the school year began last week, the North Island’s schoolteachers shared the status of their ongoing strike — and a few pointed opinions — with an audience of nearly 50 mostly sympathetic guests in a town hall meeting last week at the Civic Centre.
Vancouver Island North MLA Claire Trevena and School District 85 board trustee Jeff Field joined Vancouver Island North Teachers’ Association president Shawn Gough as speakers in the event, which offered residents a chance to bring their own questions and comments to the panel.
“Currently, the B.C. government spends $1,000 less per student, on average, than the rest of Canada does,” said Gough. “Don’t we want our children to be even average?”
The town hall was held last Tuesday, before B.C. Teachers’ Federation head Jim Iker asked the provincial government to submit to binding arbitration and Education Minister Peter Fassbender responded a day later with an unequivocal refusal.
The two sides entered this week continuing to jockey in the court of public opinion. Iker announced his full membership would vote Wednesday — after the Gazette went to press — whether to submit to binding arbitration to break the stalemate of negotiations. Should the union approve, the strike would end the moment the province agrees to the process.
Meanwhile, public school students remain out of class for a second week, with no talks scheduled between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA), the government’s bargaining agent.
“There’s an incredible amount of frustration from all quarters,” Trevena, an MLA with the opposition NDP, admitted. “We hear, obviously from the teachers, from the BCTF, the teachers’ associations, from the parents, from everyone. There is frustration.”
Talks broke down on the eve of the scheduled Sept. 2 start of the school year when the government rejected the teachers’ most recent offer, saying it remained well beyond the “zone of affordability” within which other public-sector unions have settled contracts in recent years.
The union is asking for a pay raise as well as increased resources and the restoration of class size and composition concessions stripped by the government in 2002.
The issue is clouded by the government’s appeal of a judge’s ruling last year that the government overstepped its bounds in unilaterally stripping the language from the last negotiated contract.
The provincial Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in October, but Gough, responding to a question from the audience, said the court was not the answer to the current issue.
“I don’t think we can pressure the courts to go any faster,” he said. “Realistically, we would probably get a ruling on the court case in June, next year. Which means if we’re waiting for the courts to solve everything, it’s going to be at least another school year before we get that done.”
Instead, each of the panelists urged parents and guests to pressure the government directly, through written correspondence — not e-mail — and through their associations, like school PAC organizations.
“It’s time this issue was resolved and children were back in the classroom,” said Field, a former teacher. “This problem was created by government in 2002, and it’s time the premier and the current government stepped up to the plate to right the situation.”